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McCain's Grand Ambitions


Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sits on his bus before boarding his chartered plane in Columbus, Ohio, May 15, 2008. (Associated Press)

By Dan Balz
Two things can be said about John McCain's attempt to look into the future with a major speech in Columbus Thursday. His ambitions are grand. His ability to achieve them enormously limited.

The headlines coming out of the speech are over what McCain said about withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. By early 2013, he said, America will have "welcomed home most of the servicemen and women" from that conflict. This is from a candidate who began his campaign as the leading advocate of sending more troops to Iraq and who helped resuscitate his flagging candidacy with a "No Surrender" tour last fall.

The political implications are clear. McCain and his advisers understand that Americans are looking for an exit strategy from the long and often bungled mission in Iraq. Not necessarily an instant or precipitous withdrawal, but a commitment to reduce the American footprint in Iraq substantially and rather quickly.

Saddled with his comment about maintaining some troop presence there for 100 years, regardless of how the words have been construed or misconstrued, McCain sought Thursday to refocus the debate about future military involvement in Iraq.

McCain's commitment differs from Barack Obama's. Obama has pledged a withdrawal timetable for combat troops of about 16 months (assuming that is logistically possible), but when he was pressed at a debate last September about whether he would pledge to withdraw all forces by the beginning of his second term, he demurred.

If Obama is the Democratic nominee, as is likely, he and McCain will have much to debate about the future of the U.S. presence there, but Thursday's speech was McCain's effort to change the terms of the debate, hopeful that his record on national security issues will give him an advantage if he acknowledges the public's dissatisfaction with an open-ended mission.

McCain's pledge, if it can be described as that, is no doubt conditions based, and in his very rosy view, the end of his first term will have brought achievements that have eluded the Bush administration. For starters, Osama bin Laden will be dead or captured, McCain said. Al-Qaeda in Iraq will be defeated and will have nowhere in the world it can call a safe haven. The government of Pakistan will have cooperated with the United States in applying the lessons of successful counterinsurgency elsewhere to the lawless areas of its country where terrorists continue to thrive.

McCain's imagined outcome is what supporters and critics of the administration have long envisioned as an ideal. But it is not immutable. What happens if civil war flares in Iraq, if violence is more than spasmodic, as he put it, if the militias are not fully disbanded, if the Iraqi Security Force remains less than professional and capable? Will he pursue a significant reduction in U.S. forces regardless?

To accomplish all McCain imagines would be extremely difficult, but at least in military and diplomatic initiatives, he would have a relatively free hand to chart his course. Accomplishing his domestic goals would require the cooperation of a Congress likely to have even larger Democratic majorities than it does now.

Would House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid embrace a big reduction in the corporate tax rate or a dramatically reformed tax code that includes a "fairer and flatter tax" than the current system? Particularly after McCain has, in his speech Thursday, promised to exercise his veto pen "several times in my first year in office"? If not, McCain gives no indication of how he would bring them around.

Can any president promise "several years of robust economic growth"? Can a President McCain get a Democratic Congress to approve new free trade agreements, particularly ones that in four years deliver enough prosperity in other parts of the world to "greatly strengthen America's security and the global progress of our political ideals"?

Hillary Clinton gave a speech in 2005 reminiscent of what McCain did on Thursday -- an idealized vision for what would happen if Democrats were in power. Her gauzy horizon at that time was what America could look like by 2020 and the world she described was even more idealized than McCain's was Thursday. But at least she gave the country 15 years to achieve so much. McCain claims he can make it happen in four years.

McCain doesn't say what policies he would put in place that would produce the kind of competition to public education from charter and private schools to ensure that test scores and graduation rates are rising "everywhere in the country." He says health care would be "more accessible to more Americans than at any other time in history" without saying how he would persuade a Democratic Congress to enact the kind of market solutions he has outlined in previous speeches.

In addition to major changes in health policy, education policy and energy policy, McCain also envisions fixing Social Security in his first term. There's no doubt that this is one of his goals and his willingness to work across party lines is probably far greater than was Bush's when he undertook his second-term initiative in 2005. But when he says the reforms include "some form of personal retirement accounts," does he mean as part of Social Security -- a non-starter to Democrats -- or separate and apart from Social Security?

All of that explains why the speech McCain gave has been greeted with skepticism -- not for its ambitions but for its realism. The presidency requires both big ambitions and the discipline to remain focused on a few big goals. McCain will have to make clear what his real priorities are -- as will Obama, whose list of goals is similar long.

There is one area where McCain can accomplish what he set out in Thursday's speech, goals that are fully within his capability as president to execute. These are in his commitment to bipartisanship, to transparency, to openness. What he said there was both important and achievable.

He promised weekly press conferences and, unlike past presidential candidates who have pledged to meet regularly with the press, has a track record of taking and answering reporters' questions. He volunteered to seek approval from Congress for an American equivalent of British "Question Time," in which the prime minister regularly takes questions from members of Parliament. He said he would populate his administration with Republicans and Democrats, and given his relationship with the opposition party, seems likely to make good on that promise.

Finally he said he would seek to diminish the "hyper-partisanship that treats every serious challenge facing us as an opportunity to trade insults, disparage each other's motives and fight about the next election." That is a challenge to Obama, whose campaign is even more grounded in changing the culture of politics than has been McCain's.

Those promises came at the end of a speech that raised as many questions about foreign and domestic policies as it answered. Because they are more within his grasp, they may be the most important things he said. The rest of the speech deserves the scrutiny it has begun to receive. Filling in the blanks there will be McCain's ongoing challenge.

By Web Politics Editor  |  May 15, 2008; 6:40 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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